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Latest Auction Report

Spring Auctions and a Change of Venue.

February is here, Christmas is just fading as a memory, the weather is feeling pretty wintery and, yet, here we are, just a stone’s throw from the first auction of the year.

The most immediately relevant news is that Holt’s have abandoned their foray into Blackheath, in favour of Kensington. A more central venue is probably sensible. Footfall appears to have dropped, though sales have carried on without too much of a noticeable blip.. 

Nick Holt has decided to move from the, oddly lit, Blackheath venue to new premises in Kensington.

On-line bidding goes from strength to strength, which is probably no surprise. Computers and internet based activity are becoming the norm for all kinds of activities. The twenty year-old without any cash when Holt’s began internet bidding services in 2003 is now probably a successful city boy of thirty-five, to whom the concept of on-line life is the norm rather than the novelty it was to his age equivalent back then.

Holt’s sold £150,000 worth of kit on-line in December, with the single biggest figure being £28,000, proving a great deal of confidence in the system and showing how much of this business ifs getting done by on-line viewing, decision making and bidding.

The Blackheath venue Holt’s have used for a year, as with all choices, was a compromise. In its favour was great parking, plenty of space, good catering facilities and, for some, it was closer. To its detriment we have to account for the tricky cross-town journey, negotiating London’s increasingly horrible traffic. While it was less than ten miles from the old Hammersmith venue, the journey, for me, increased from three hours, to five. 

The new venue will have no parking, which is a problem for people wanting to bring, or leave with, firearms but Kensington should attract more viewers and help generate that all-important atmosphere of excitement and momentum that was, for so long, a feature of Holt’s rise to prominence. The new venue is; The Army Reserve Centre, Adam & Eve Mews, Kensington, W8 6TN. The next auction is on March 19th.

Viewing and selling days have moved, so those used to a routine of Thursday auctions and early mid-week viewing will need to put the current dates in their diary. Auctions are now to be held on Tuesdays, with viewing on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It will be interesting to see how many people use the weekend viewing as a day out; it could prove to be a very good move, opening the venue up when most people have a day off work. Please note that I.D will be required to attend and registration in advance can be arranged with Holt’s via their website.

Holt’s have announced their dates for later in the year as: 18th June, 19th September and 12th December. In December, there was a departure from the norm in that the Sealed Bids sale items were not taken to London for viewing. This was disappointing for those like me, who made the trip to London to look through everything but does not seem to have hurt sales, as the final tally showed that £250,000 went through the till.. 

Overall sales figures for the period topped a million pounds. As Brexit uncertainty looms, it is comforting to note that Holt’s sold 56% of lots to UK buyers, obviating the worry over exports and taxes. The 21% of buyers based in Europe will need some clarity as to what will happen regarding sales by the time we get to the next one, in June. Right now, it is anyone’s guess.

Another development which has been progressing quietly behind the scenes is the collaboration between Holt’s and gunmaker J-P Daeschler. Jean-Pierre is based in Kent and has, in recent sales , been attendant at Holt’s viewing days and on-hand to advise buyers about the guns and any work required to bring them up to speed. 

J-P Daeschler (left) has bought John Dickson & Son.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that Holt’s are holding a valuation day at the premises of Jon Dickson & Son, in Scotland this month. Well, the two observations are not unrelated. J-P Daeschler is the proud new owner of John Dickson & Son, has retained the Scottish workshops and intends to continue production from there, with the famous ‘round action’ leading the way but other models from the firm, as well as the MacNaughton and Daniel Fraser names, which are part of Dickson’s, following in due course.

A change of ownership often gives a boost to the brand value of a company. We have seen this with Rigby over recent years (note the .470 N.E that sold at Holt’s last time for £28,000). Dickson is already a hugely collectable name and has a keen following. Will we now see its stock rise higher still? J-P is a real enthusiast for the brand and it is in good hands. I’m expecting to see interesting developments trickle out steadily from now on. 

I wonder if there will be a growth in interest in the guns of Frederick Beesley, now that the name has a London address once more. LGS have brought Beesley to King’s Road, Chelsea. Their new guns are built by Perugini & Visini but the increased profile and plans to invest in the brand, may see interest rise in the old guns too. There is a cased pair of 12-bore, Beesley side-locks and a cartridge magazine by Beesley in the catalogue so, if you want to be early to the party, get involved.

Bonhams have announced 23rd May as their first sale of 2019 and another on November 28th wraps up the year.  Their December sale last year was really quite impressive and targeting two dates per annum and striving to put on a real show is a good move, making each event more memorable and exciting. 

I picked up a nice 20-bore Watson Bros side-lock, last time, for a client, which is now undergoing a bit of restoration. The Max Gau Winchester collection they sold was a good performer, with one Model 1866 netting £27,000. Overall, the auction achieved 88% sold by lot, which is impressive.

Gavin Gardiner is opening 2019 with a sale on May 1st, in London and Southam’s have 14th March listed for their spring sale. Keep an eye on provincial auctions too, with their occasional gems, though it can be expensive travelling up and down the country after one or two guns, only to be unsuccessful four times out of five. Auctions can be frustrating but the occasional rewards are what keep us coming back for more.

Foreign Interlopers

An interesting letter appeared on my desk recently. It was from a European auction house and it was asking for consignments from the UK. The auction house was Springer in Vienna and they clearly smell an opportunity.

In a very straightforward manner, Springer, styling themselves as ‘Purveyor to the imperial court of Austria, Vienna, since 1836’, spelt out their reasoning for targeting the UK market: Brexit and the likely fallout to follow. “Sell your back stock and protect yourself from a trade slump in weapons after Brexit” they suggest, adding; “With Brexit fast approaching, now is the time to consider what measures you can take to protect and insulate your business. Exports, as well as sales of weapons, is (sic) expected to become much more difficult following the separation”.

Is this opportunism, exploiting the effects of what one faction have always called ‘Project Fear’? Perhaps. Does the Springer letter tap into some general perception that there is a degree of pessimism and anxiety around the gun trade in the UK, in the face of annexation from the European trading block? Maybe.

Sales at Holt’s were slightly down in December.

What is apparent is that Springer’s emergence as a bigger player on the auction scene, targeting British consigners, over the last three years would have seemed very unlikely five years ago. Has the spectre of Brexit made the British auctioneers look vulnerable? Springer have copied Holt’s model quite closely. They offer a live auction, and a silent auction for their lower value goods. 

They claim to be Europe’s largest auction house for firearms, selling around two thousand guns per quarter and tout their unrivalled access to the American and European markets. However, British auctioneers have been selling into Russia and the States for years and most seem to have well-oiled systems to facilitate the transfer of bought and sold lots to anywhere in the world. However, one cannot easily shrug off the aggressive targeting of the British market by overseas firms. 

One should remember that Rock Island (based in the US) now has Howard Dixon, once of Holt’s, and a former head of sporting guns at Christies, representing them in the UK and Europe. It once looked like Holt’s Bonham’s and Gavin Gardiner had the bulk of the UK market sewn-up. They were also very successful in bringing goods into London for worldwide sale. With Brexit, is London as the hub of sporting gun sales in Europe under threat, as is its status as the hub of financial services?

It seems a very long time ago that I attended an evening event at Purdey’s shop in South Audley Street and Richard Purdey, who I both like and respect, replied, to some comment, that we should all go out and vote UKIP. 

I recall being quite shocked: the thought ‘What that bunch of nutters?” certainly crossed my mind. I certainly didn’t take UKIP seriously then and thought that no sensible person did either. They were a fringe group of single issue extremists with their heads in an imaginary past. I had no idea that a few years later they would have been so successful in achieving their aims and the UK would be facing such an uncertain and self-inflicted economic future as a result. But here we are. The vultures are circling.

Any historian of the gun trade in this country will have seen enough case studies of the demise of many great gun-making firms in the years following the Second World War to recognise that economic isolation and uncertainty can decimate the ranks in short order. The last thirty years have been quite kind, by comparison.

Old firms, like Watson Bros, resurrected and once-again independent, established gun makers, like Purdey and Holland & Holland, pushing their image and expanding as ‘lifestyle brands’, new start-ups, like Boxall & Edmiston and Longthorne flourishing. Auctioneers, especially Holt’s, proving that London was the centre of the gun-collecting world and expanding their reach through a network of overseas agents. 

However, the signs of stress are already apparent. Some major players are shedding staff on the gun side of business and focussing more on clothing, London auctions are facing competition from Europe and America, Boxall & Edmiston have closed their doors in the face of diminishing orders and noise from around the trade suggests sales are slow and confidence low. 

What is selling? Turkish guns that cost less than £500. The signs don’t look good to me. However, auctioneers report that sales of mid-range guns are still taking place, all-be-it at lower prices than was the case a few years ago. If priced right, everything finds its market. In this respect, the auctioneers have a better time of it as they don’t own the inventory, they just take a percentage of whatever it sells for. Fluidity is the name of the game.

European auction houses smell an opportunity to take business from the UK after Brexit.

Holt’s figures for December were down on their average, slightly. The percentage of unsold lots was a little higher. As always, the good stuff sold well, the tired, or ordinary, guns proved harder work and prices are down on what they were three or four years ago across the board. Holts still sell most of their guns to UK buyers, which makes things better from the border issue – you don’t have to cross borders when you ship to a British buyer from Norfolk. 

Bringing consignments in from Europe could be more tricky post-Brexit but only 25% of Holt’s kit comes from overseas. A lot of the European rifles and guns that come to London from Europe, for sale, are sold back to European buyers. That negates the effects of VAT imposed on imported goods sold in the UK.

Of course, there are counter-punchers bucking trends in the trade. Rigby and Westley Richards both look confident and ambitious. The British Game Alliance is pushing the image of game meat as a mainstream, healthy alternative, the spectre of a lead ban seems to have receded, for now. I truly hope that the trade withstands the present, and coming, economic uncertainty relatively unscathed.

The pro-Brexit bulls will have us believe that everything will be rosy whatever happens, but they have been changing their story daily, as the reality of an exit from Europe looks ever more remote from the one they promised back in the early days of campaigning. We may be looking at a no-deal, suck-it-and-see strategy, if one can call that a strategy. Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems to be expecting a windfall from the anticipated storm that Brexit will unleash on the UK economy. I remember the 1970s and early ‘80s. I certainly hope we are not heading back in that direction.

Chatting with one of London’s prominent auctioneers this week suggested that much of what I have been picking up is perhaps overly pessimistic. “I’m hearing what I heard twenty years ago” he told me – ‘Good stuff is hard to find”. There are still buyers in the thirty-to-fifty age bracket asking for classic guns like Purdey’s or Dickson round-actions and they have a sensible budget. What we may be missing in the younger generation is an interest in ‘wierdo’ patents. That seems confined to the older collectors but the aspirational thirtysomething with some cash to spend does still want a pair of Purdeys, much as did my generation a quarter of a century ago.

I, like most people in the country, am tired of thinking and writing about Brexit. We are being popularly referred to as ‘BOB’; for ‘bored of Brexit’. Yet, until we have some certainty, the subject dominates daily life for Bobs and everyone else with a business to run, especially one that crosses borders. 

So, Happy 2019 to everyone. May it be prosperous and pleasant. I’m sure the fact that this year is the centennial of the worldwide influenza epidemic that wiped out more people than World War One and the Black Death combined is merely coincidental.